With the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge back on the calendar for the first time in three years, the USA Hockey National Team Development Program model proved to be unstoppable.
The U.S. National Under-17 Team cruised to a gold medal over Canada Red by a score of 11-3 on Saturday at the Langley Events Centre in Langley, B.C. The squad finished with a perfect 7-0 record and outscored its opponents by a total of 50-15.
It was a truly dominant performance from a group that has been together since September and played nine games against teams from the North American Hockey League and the USHL before touching down in B.C.
"I think the outside, being-together piece, more than the hockey piece, helps more," said Cole Eiserman, who posted three goals and three assists in the gold-medal game to finish the tournament with 20 points. "Just how close you are as a group and just to battle for each other every single day. We really are a group of brothers."
Eiserman's 12 goals in seven games tied a longstanding U-17 record, set by Alex Ovechkin in 2001. Both Eiserman and his linemate James Hagens, who averaged three points a game and finished with a tournament-leading 21 points, also eclipsed the previous overall scoring record of 18 points, set in 2014 by Colin White.
Making his U.S. head coaching debut this year, Nick Fohr has been working with the NTDP's U-17 and U-18 squads for more than a decade. He served as an assistant to Don Granato when that 2014 squad shut out Canada Pacific 4-0 to take gold in Sydney, N.S.
"That team scored a lot," Fohr recalled. "The depth that we had on that team, with Auston Matthews and Colin White and Matthew Tkachuk and Noah Hanifin, Zach Werenski, Charlie McAvoy — there's so many guys, and that team had so much depth and so much ability to score. This team's path was very similar. We were lucky that in each game, we were able to get a lead and that was a huge, huge piece to our success."
U.S. captain Charlie Pardue was not surprised to see his linemates Hagens and Eiserman dominate.
"I played against them growing up all the time," he said. "They were always the best ones on the ice, and now, they're working together and I'm honored to work with them too. It's just crazy, they're such skilled players. They came to work this week and that's what happens."
Hagens turned 16 on Nov. 3 and will not be eligible for the NHL draft until 2025. Eiserman, born on Aug. 29, 2006, will be one of the youngest players in his 2024 draft class.
Already a solid 5-foot-11 and 191 pounds and wearing the familiar No. 34 for Team USA, Eiserman's high-end puck skills and lethal shot bring back memories of a young Auston Matthews.
He attended noted hockey prep school Shattuck St. Mary's, and name-checked a fellow Shattuck alumnus when asked about his role model.
"My favorite player growing up, and he'll forever be my favorite player, is Sidney Crosby," said Eiserman, a native of Newburyport, Mass. "It's a little weird, but he's been such a class act all the way through his whole life, just how good he is."
Saturday's gold-medal win is the sixth in tournament history for the United States and the first since 2017 when dynamic duo Jack Hughes and Cole Caufield led the way. Canada Red won silver that year, with a talented squad including Dylan Cozens, Dylan Holloway, Peyton Krebs, Alexis Lafreniere and Bowen Byram.
And while USA Hockey chooses to bring its top talent from across the country together at age 16 and allow those players to develop as a group, Hockey Canada takes a different tactic. At the U-17 level, Canada ices three teams, each comprised of players from across the country.
"I love the way they have it right now, where you get to meet new guys from the 'Dub' and from the 'Q,' " said Canada Black captain Sam Dickinson of the OHL's London Knights. "I really like the current format they have, and they've done a great job with it."
Canada Red's silver medal is the first podium finish for the Canadians since 2017. That group's coach, Greg Walters of the Owen Sound Attack, believes the broad-based approach at this level pays dividends over the longer term.
"Team Canada believes in giving multiple kids a chance to prove themselves, and I think it's the right way," he said. "This is the start of it. The end is much different for Team Canada, with the 18s and 19 (year-olds)."
In the bronze-medal game on Saturday, Canada Black fell 7-1 to Finland. Their coach, Mark O'Leary of the Moose Jaw Warriors, also believes in the benefits of the current system.
"No. 1 is the development," he said. "You're able to touch 66 kids with all those values and the standards that you want to set for Hockey Canada. And on the other side, evaluation. You get to know 66 kids and as deep as it is, the talent pool, once you get to the Hlinka (Gretzky Cup), it's 22 guys. And U-20 is the same thing.
"The more you get to know these individuals, both off the ice and on the ice, it only helps you make the right decisions when it comes time for U-18 and U-20."
Even the U.S. coach appreciates Canada's approach.
"It's a great event to get to know the kids around the world, who the next best kids are going to be and where they're coming from," Fohr said. "You really get to see that here and Canada does a great job, bringing in three teams. You get to see a lot of players and they get to do a lot with that. I think that's really important to their success over the years, for sure."